through the mirror of my mind
I teach a class of my own about American government, but I also serve as a teaching assistant for another class on foreign policy. What that means is that I grade papers, run class when the professor is absent, answer questions, and listen to a lot of complaints about exams. I also attend all the lectures and take detailed notes.
In the foreign policy class this week, the professor has been lecturing on Nixon's foreign policy. Today we talked about Vietnamization and the Nixon administration's realization that they had to find a way to get out of Vietnam without it looking like a defeat for the United States. I've heard and read about all of this many times before - you can't get through a graduate-level Cold War course without discussing Vietnam. But it's been a few years, and the parallels between what happened then and what's happening in Iraq now are disturbing. Here are some of the lecture points:
- LBJ's administration kept increasing troop levels.
- Americans were told over and over to say the course and that eventually the course of the war would start to favor the U.S.
- After the Tet Offensive, the American public stopped believing that rhetoric.
- In a few short months in 1968, support for the war plummeted below 50%, creating a gap between American commitments and American public opinion.
- Thus the Nixon administration pursued Vietnamization, a strategy to train and equip the South Vietnamese army, bomb North Vietnam, and provide an interval between a U.S. withdrawl and the inevitable fall of South Vietnam.
- The time bought came at the expense of four more years of fighting, destruction, and death.
- A similar strategy has been proposed for Iraq.
Jess and Ayesha and I helped take a group of visiting scholars to the LBJ ranch a few years ago. I remember watching the film there and thinking how much LBJ and George W. Bush had in common. With LBJ, of course, the "I'm-a-rural-rancher" thing was authentic, not contrived for the purposes of getting elected (W., who was born in scenic New Haven, Connecticut, bought that ranch in 1999, when his run for the presidency was already well underway). But the two of them have a lot in common: both were very sure of themselves, very good at the game of politics, and both have pursued an untenable strategy in foreign wars. That strategy, and the policies of a defense secretary who insisted on "staying the course" led to disaster and thousands of unnecessary deaths in Vietnam. And America's defeat there led to twenty years of self-doubt for our armed forces. If the parallels to Vietnam continue to develop in Iraq, what will happen?
I worry about how long this war will stretch on. I worry about the fact that, unlike in Vietnam, we started it. I worry about what will happen to our Iraqi war veterans down the line. We support them now, but as public support for the war continues to fall (and it will), I hope our country won't treat them the way they treated Vietnam vets. Our servicemen and women signed up to serve our country, and it isn't their fault if an administration lied or trumped up charges to justify military action. It's also not their fault if bad policy eventually forces us to withdraw.
For their sake, and for our country's sake, I hope I'm wrong about these parallels between the two wars. But I'm not hopeful about it.